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James Gillray: caricature and satire

'caricature shops are always besieged by the public, but it is only in Mrs Humphrey's shop, where Gillray's works are sold, that you will find people of high rank, good taste and intelligence.'
Johann Christian Hüttner, London und Paris, 1798

Gillray transformed caricature. He was one of the first professional artists to incorporate caricature portraits into more complex and ambitious satirical prints. By the 1780s, the word 'caricature' had come to denote all satirical prints. Its practice was no longer a light-hearted amateur pastime, but a political, and often rancorous activity.

Gillray's career coincides with the increasing intensity of political life. He made much of the rivalry between the two main political parties, the Tories led by William Pitt and the Whigs led by Charles James Fox. The Royal Family, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars were also rich sources of inspiration. Gillray's savagely comic caricatures exposed corruption and moral failings while mocking folly, greed and lechery.

'Very slippy weather'
by James Gillray, published by Hannah Humphrey, after John Sneyd
published 10 February 1808
NPG D12901

Mrs Humphrey gained exclusive rights to publish and sell Gillray's caricatures at her print shop on New Bond Street. His prints, particularly the hand-coloured productions, were not cheap and were aimed at the more discerning customer.

Amateurs continued to contribute to the caricature business. Several collaborated with Gillray, who developed and improved their ideas, including this print, a successful collaboration with his friend Rev. John Sneyd.

'"Two pair of portraits"'
by James Gillray, published by John Wright
published 1 December 1798
NPG D13687

John Horne Tooke, the radical politician, is shown as an artist painting the rival politicians William Pitt and Charles James Fox. Gillray mocks Horne Tooke's political indecision. Horne Tooke had shifted his allegiance away from Pitt's Tories to Fox's Whig party. Ten years earlier, Horne Tooke had written an essay entitled 'Two Pair of Portraits' celebrating the Pitt family as virtuous politicians, and denigrating Fox and his father as corrupt. This print is an example of the type of complex political satire into which Gillray has incorporated caricature.

William Pitt
by Charles Brome, after William Owen
published 1799
NPG D16448

Alongside caricatures, print shops also supplied a demand for traditional 'straight' portraits of significant public figures, usually engraved after paintings. William Pitt, sometimes known as Pitt 'the younger', was the second son of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham. He entered Parliament in 1780, and became Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1782 and Prime Minister in 1784 when he was just twenty-four. He was a favourite target for Gillray.

William Pitt
by James Gillray
NPG D4086

Gillray had fully intended to become a serious engraver. He undertook a commission from one of his early publishers S.W. Fores, for a portrait of William Pitt, seated in a statesman-like pose. The result was rejected, as too close to caricature. Gillray retorted:

'I am convinced that my likeness is a striking one, therefore, I will not alter an iota for any Man's opinion upon Earth'.

This print was Gillray's second attempt, published by John Harris. Here Pitt's features seem, if anything, even more exaggerated, as Gillray is drawn inexorably towards caricature.

'The giant factotem amusing himself'
by James Gillray, published by Hannah Humphrey
published 21 January 1797
NPG D12593

By the 1790s, Gillray had abandoned the idea of producing a 'straight' portrait of Pitt. Instead, he created one of the most distinctive caricatures of the eighteenth century. Here, an excessively lanky Pitt straddles the House of Commons like a modern Colossus of Rhodes, a familiar motif in eighteenth-century satire. He flattens his famous rival Charles James Fox with his foot. Under the threat of invasion from France, Pitt had just secured £18 million, by a scheme of national subscription, to fund the war.

Gillray was paid a pension by the Tories in exchange for further partisan prints.

'Wierd sisters; ministers of darkness; minions of the moon'
by James Gillray, published by Hannah Humphrey
published 23 December 1791
NPG D12436

Gillray regularly drew upon classical, literary and artistic sources for his satires. Here, he transforms Henry Fuseli's famous painting of the witches' scene from Shakespeare's Macbeth into a political comment on King George III's 'madness'. Caricatures of King George's and Queen Charlotte's profiles form the moon. His darkened sleeping profile represents his 'lunacy', while her smiling illuminated face represents her active role in protecting him. William Pitt is instantly recognisable between two other cabinet members, Henry Dundas and Edward Thurlow, as he anxiously considers the possibility of losing influence if the Prince of Wales became Regent.

King George IV ('A voluptuary under the horrors of digestion')
by James Gillray, published by Hannah Humphrey
published 2 July 1792
NPG D12460

Before Gillray, the private life of the Royal family had rarely been the subject of satire. This is Gillray's most powerful caricature of the reckless and greedy Prince of Wales. Here he recovers from a gluttonous meal, picking his teeth with a fork. Amongst the various paraphernalia of a dissolute lifestyle, the Prince's coat-of-arms is mocked as a crossed knife and fork. This is a refined stipple engraving, a technique usually used for idealised portraits. Gillray employs it as a mischievous parody. Nevertheless, the Prince was one of Gillray's fans, buying 121 of his prints in one year alone.


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